Around the Campfire
Decimus had walked over to talk to the leader of the cavalry camped nearby. When he returned, he was frowning with irritation but said nothing about his reception. Fronto suggested that they might be mutineers. Rarely, in fact, I learned from Caesarius, would such horseman be on the road unless they were on a specific mission. These idlers, Caesarius pointed out, were faraway from the nearest Roman fort. What were they doing out here in the middle of nowhere, without a Roman officer in charge? Not one of them wore the helmet of an optio nor was there the standards of their cohort or legion displayed in their camp. Even our small, informal group had brought along the Galilean cohort’s flag with Rome’s eagle on top of the pole and planted it immediately in our camp.
“You think they’re from Antioch?” I asked, as we unpacked the mules.
“I don’t know,” Caesarius shuddered. “I hope Fronto’s wrong, and they’re actually cavalry.”
“What did they say to you?” We heard Aulus ask Decimus.
The optio muttered something we couldn’t hear. When Ajax asked him the same question, Decimus raised his palms, as if to say, “I don’t know!”
Ajax’s eyes widened disbelief. “They wouldn’t even talk to you?”
“I couldn’t understand them. They were all pretty drunk.”
“Are you serious?” Langullus’ mouth dropped. “You should report them to Aurelian. That’s no way for cavalrymen to act.”
“If they’re cavalrymen.” Ajax sneered.
“Mutineers.” Fronto folded his arms. “I’ve seen those kind before.”
“Well, it’s not very professional.” Langullus grumbled. “Where’s the discipline? They’re up to no good.”
“I think Fronto’s right,” Geta grumbled, “they’re mutineers!”
“All right,” Decimus said, clapping his hands, “enough fear mongering. We can take care of ourselves. Let’s finish unloading our gear.” “You, Rufus and Enrod,” he snapped his fingers, “fetch water from the station well—first to the horses then our flasks. Aulus, you pick the first watch, while we set up camp.”
“Abzug,” Aulus barked, “grab a lance and shield.” “You lads,” he pointed to the Gauls, “join Abzug when you’ve finished your chore. Fronto, Ajax and Apollo will take the midnight watch. I’ll take the morning patrol with Ibrim and one of the vets. Langullus, you bring Abzug, Rufus, and Enrod something to eat when our food arrives.”
That evening I agreed, in a fit of nervous energy, to learn outdoors lore. Aulus had remembered my promise yesterday as we began setting up camp and took the time now to teach me how to raise a tent and pound tent pegs into the ground. He then showed me how to prepare my sleeping area with a pack shovel in order to lay my pallet over a soft bed of moss and dried leaves. After preparing my quarters, he instructed me in the building and tending a fire, which included finding the best kindling and the proper way to heft an axe. This time there was no carcass crackling on a crude spit. The officer on duty brought the optio’s requisitioned food and a large jug of wine. Our meal this time was salt pork, moldy bread, and overripe figs. It required no labor on our parts, but caused understandable grumbling in our group. Nevertheless, according to Caesarius, who acted as cook before, this was normal meal at military outposts, one of the main reasons hungry soldiers were forced to forage and often pillage on the march.
That night, as the sun set, and the men ate their frugal meal, which I barely touched, we sat around the fire, sharing the resinous wine included with our food. The only sustenance I would have that night would be the bread and fruit, which I inspected carefully before putting in my mouth. I took a long swig from the jug, myself, after wiping its end with my sleeve. The warm rush of spirits was enough to dull my wits, but not dampen my hunger. Yet the cheap, military stock was sufficient to loosen all our lips, including mine.
“I was tempted to eat the pork.” I confessed to Aulus. “Perhaps Longinus is right: I must learn to eat forbidden food. What will I do if they eat pig in Antioch and all sorts of creepy things? God doesn’t want me to starve, does he? Didn’t King David eat sacred offerings in the temple? Am I better than a king of the Jews?”
“Thaddeus, shut up!” Aulus whispered from the corner of his mouth. “We talked about this before. They get the point. You should’ve kept that to yourself!”
“What’s he talking about?” asked Fronto. “What king of the Jews?”
“Is this another story?” Ajax frowned.
“Jew talk,” growled Geta. “You should’ve heard him back at the fort.”
“Na-a-a,” Caesarius voice slurred, “he’s talkin’ about pork. Jews don’t eat pigs, but he’s gonna try it next time.” “Right lad?” He elbowed me in the ribs. “You’re gonna show those priests!”
“Well,...I guess so,” I answered, feeling Aulus’ glare. “My brother once said ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do.’”
“Good for you, lad!” Caesarius cackled, slapping his knee. “You’ll make a good Roman yet. Nothing like a good, suckling pig!”
“Well,...I dunno,” I said, blushing foolishly, “if I have to. I’d have to be awfully hungry.”
“Thaddeus, shut-up!” Aulus lost his patience. “How much of that jug did you drink?” He eyed me suspiciously.
“Lo-o-ots!” I said, slack-jawed.
“No more wine for him,” he scolded, looking around at the group.
As if to change the subject, Decimus stood up and held his palms to the flames. Ibrim, always a shadowy figure, stood on the opposite side of the pit warming his hands too. In many ways, the wizened little Arab was as frightening as Ajax and Apollo.
The optio stared into the darkness, perhaps worrying about the unfriendly cavalrymen nearby. Subtly, he looked back and cocked an eyebrow at me,
“What did we talk about, huh?” he whispered as I felt his scrutiny.
“Too much wine.” Aulus shook his head.
“Sorry,” I murmured contritely, rising to my feet, “...I should’ve known better.”
Feeling small and insignificant in their gaze, I stood beside the optio, blinking stupidly at the fire. I could hear some of them snickering in the circle. As I stood there on wobbly legs, I wondered again fleetingly why I was here with these rude men. They weren’t my people. I didn’t belong in this crowd.
“Yes, indeed,” Decimus changed the subject, “there’s nothing like a good fire to warm the spirits.”
“Aye, and nothing like wine to let those spirits loose,” offered Ibrim, laughing to himself.
“They say the gods speak to us from the flames,” Decimus muttered fancifully. “Someday Thaddeus, you might be asked to burn incense to our gods....You can’t live in two worlds: Roman and Jew.”
“Jews can’t be a soldier—period!” Langullus grumbled under his breath.
“Ah, but Jude’s going to be a scribe.” Geta snickered.
“Thaddeus, his name’s Thaddeus,” corrected Aulus, “and he’ll do just fine!”
I was confused at this point: was I Thaddeus or was I Jude? Many of them, perhaps mockingly, called me Judah, the name I hated the most. Suddenly, I felt very sick. Before I made an even bigger fool of myself in front of their eyes, I staggered into the shadows, bent down and vomited what little food was left in my stomach. Everyone laughed aloud that moment. Though I was embarrassed, I realized that my purge was taken as a matter of course. When I was finished, the laughter died down as I walked back into the light.
“Ho-ho, now he’s a proper Roman,” Fronto announce genially. “I’ve been there many times myself.”
“You feel better, lad?” Geta tried to sound amiable.
Decimus motioned for me to sit down. “The wine the station officer gave us isn’t fit for pigs. We gotta find Thaddeus some good Greek wine—none of that Syrian swell.”
“I prefer Roman wine,” commented Langullus, with a burp.
“Hah, you’d drink fermented piss,” Geta snickered. “When’s the last time you had Roman wine?”
“You think that’s funny,” growled Langullus. “Shall I tell them what you did in Alexandria, Geta? It’s much worse than drinking piss.”
“He was joking, Langullus,” Decimus said quietly. “You’ve all had too much too drink.”
“Let’s talk about something else.” Aulus slapped his knees. “I think we’re also a bit nervous. It’s been a trying day.”
“Hey, anyone know a good story?” Caesarius looked around the circle. “That Jude’s got some good stories. What a blood-thirsty fellow was that Joshua and Gideon—”
“Yes, he was merciless,” Fronto nodded thoughtfully, “he didn’t take prisoners. Even killed women, children too.” “You’re God is hard-hearted,” he added, looking across the fire at me. “Zeus might rape a virgin now and then, but he never wiped out entire peoples.”
“Wha-at?” My jaw dropped.
“Well,” Decimus leaned down and whispered in my ear, “what do you expect? Stop talking about your invisible god. No one understands him!”
“I don’t think Thaddeus will be telling any stories tonight,” observed Aulus as I listened to Decimus’ rebuke. Though falling asleep, I had been jolted awake by Fronto’s statement, giggling hysterically at the bursts of air in my ear as the optio made his point. “Hey, snap out of it!” Aulus reached over and mussed my hair.
“Leave Jude alone,” teased Geta. “It’s been a trying day for him. He’s homesick. He misses mother’s teat.”
“Oh, I heard about them Jew winches.” Ibrim rubbed his hands. “They’re better than Greeks.”
“That’s enough,” Decimus looked down irritably at Geta. “No more wine for you. You either Thaddeus.” “And you, Ibrim,” he pointed, “I never heard you talk that way.” “All of you,” he raised his voice. “We’ll celebrate when we put this cursed journey behind us.” “Where’s that jug?” He searched the circle.” “Come on Fronto, Ajax, and Apollo. You’ve got the next watch.” “Hand it over,” he said, motioning with his hand, “we gotta keep our wits.”
After Fronto pushed forward the jug, Decimus shook it, stared at him in disbelief, and then turned it upside down to demonstrate its emptiness.
His voice dripped with sarcasm now: “You auxilia take nothing serious. How’re you gonna stay awake on watch?”
“They’re no damn good,” Aulus whispered to me. “You stay away from them Thaddeus, you hear me, especially that Egyptian.”
“Yes sir.” I swallowed, scratching my head.
Fronto, who feared no man, stood up, bowed comically, and then sat back down. Turning with disgust from the Thracian to the veterans, Decimus barked wearily, “You men decide which one of you will accompany me and Aulus on the next watch after those auxiliaries take their turn. You stay in the tent, Thaddeus.”
“I don’t like going to sleep with those animals nearby,” muttered Caesarius.
“Which animals?” I asked discreetly. “Our neighbors or them?”
“Both.” His Adam’s apple move up and down.
Caesarius, like myself, was frightened. Apollo looked over the fire that moment, an eerie reflection in his bird-of-prey eyes. When confronting Decimus during our stopover at Cana, he had backed away prudently, but it was difficult to see fear in the Egyptian’s stony expression. I wasn’t sure what emotion I saw in Apollo then. He seemed to be frowning and smiling at the same time.
“We’ve been lucky so far,” he announced, staring into the flames. “There’s been no bandits, no ambushes, no sign of those shepherds. But I’ll be glad when we reach Antioch and are reassigned. Antioch is civilized like Alexandria, Athens, and Rome. It’ll be good to have a fresh start.”
“Reassigned? Fresh start?” Ibrim looked down at Fronto. “What does he mean?”
Obviously not privy to this information, Ibrim bent over so Fronto could whisper into his ear. In his tipsy state, the Thracian, whispered loudly, in a slurred voice, “It’s true. It’s better than being cashiered!”
“Why does Cornelius want to cut you loose?” Decimus studied the Egyptian. “All it says in the orders is ‘When the you arrive at Aurelian’s headquarters, ask the prefect to reassign Apollo, Ajax and Ibrim.’ It says nothing about Fronto or the two Gauls.” “Are you three men in some kind of trouble back at the fort?”
“No, uh-uh,” said Ajax, shaking his head. “I had no desire to leave Galilee. I’ve spent most of my life there.”
“Me neither!” Ibrim stomped his foot. “My people live near Nazareth and Sepphoris.”
“What about you?” Aulus looked across the flames at Apollo. “Why do you want to leave Sepphoris? The discipline is much tougher in an imperial cohort.”
“I think I explained my reasons.” His lip curled. “I don’t know why Ajax, Ibrim and me are written on that scroll.”
“Well,” Decimus snarled, “it looks like you men did something for the prefect to write that down. The implications are clear to me: you men are persona non grata in Galilee. I know that you’re a hothead Ajax, but you’ve always been a good cavalrymen, and you Ibrim are a good scout. But you Apollo are another matter. I’ve never seen you do anything but climb on and off your horse and stay as far away from battle as possible. The question is ‘what could you three men have done to be singled out like this’?”
“I think you know what happened.” Aulus looked at Fronto. “Why don’t you give us your account?”
Strangely enough, both Ajax and Ibrim nodded at him to go ahead. There was a look of resignation on Apollo’s face, which struck me as peculiar too. He seemed to take his potential reassignment and the optio’s rebuke for granted. In spite of his unsavory reputation, there was a strange, unsettling dignity about this man.
“When we were chasing those bandits,” Fronto began with a flicker of remorse, “I remember Apollo running down one of them with a lance. Ajax also made sport of him, until Ibrim finished him off with his bow. There were others. We should’ve stopped them. At first they were just tormenting the runners. It caught on with the cavalry. It wasn’t as bad as what those veterans did. These men weren’t captured yet. They were running like fair game, at least that’s how Ajax saw it. At first, Rufus, Enrod, and I followed the other auxilia’s example. We stopped short of killing them, unless they turned and fought back, but those three went too far. They must’ve been drunk. I’ve never seen Ajax do anything like that. The rest of us were just playing with’em until they surrendered, but Ibrim used them for target practice and Apollo and Ajax spiked’em like pigs on the run.”
It was a chilling account that I thought would bring immediate rebuke from Decimus and Aulus. I was shocked at everyone’s response. Fronto sighed. Ajax shrugged as if to say “so what?” As Ibrim pulled out a small flask, his own private stock, and took a swig of strong spirits, Caesarius and Geta laughed at Apollo’s discomfort. Aulus began toying with him now.
“Stuck’em like pigs, huh?” he snarled. “You enjoy that? You do a lot of scouting, but I never saw you chase an armed horseman or enemy with sword and shield. Yet you found time to kill fleeing men. That wasn’t very brave Apollo.”
Apollo smirked, his lip curling again into a snarl. “Who cares? They were murdering Jews!”
That response, if any, should have brought forth a stern rebuke, but the point wasn’t even argued. I noted how Aulus taunted the Egyptian for general cowardice, not merely the one event. He went on, as Geta and Caesarius listened with amusement, to criticize Apollo for his laziness at the fort, dereliction of duty in the field, and bad behavior on this trip. In a delayed reaction, the optio, who had slipped out momentarily to check on the men on watch, returned just as Fronto was giving his account and commented on the main issue but in a light-hearted mood, aimed at both the auxiliaries and veterans, glossing over the murder of unarmed Jews.
“I just heard about that little chase,” he replied light-heartedly, looking around the group. “It’s not as bad as what veterans did, but things did get out of hand. If only you veterans had been more discreet. You didn’t even try to hide it, you were so angry. I guess Cornelius has a soft heart for Jews.” “You men,” he directed his voice at the auxilia, “were stupid, but you didn’t break any rules. After all, they were running, and they might escape.” “But you, Ajax,” he added, wringing his finger, “got us into a fix at Cana. I could have your neck for killing that shepherd. That should never have happened. I take some responsibility for it. For both of our sakes, we’ll keep this to ourselves. Let’s just hope we don’t run into those Arabs on the way.”
“Oh, I don’t think we will,” Ibrim shook his head. “They’re angry, not stupid!”
“How can you be so sure?” Geta asked anxiously. “We’re really exposed out here!”
“Have you forgotten?” Langullus pointed into the darkness. “There’s cavalrymen next to us? Those Arabs wouldn’t dare!”
“I dunno,” Caesarius reminded him, “our neighbors don’t seem very friendly.”
Those moments around the campfire I witnessed the callousness of soldiers. During the discussion of Ajax, Apollo and Ibrim’s murder of the Jews, they had ignored my presence. It was, in Decimus own words, acceptable to kill running Jews. The Roman legionnaires who patrolled Nazareth had been no better than Decimus and Aulus, but I never felt as intimidated as I did now as I mingled with these men as a potential soldier myself. They had no respect for me or my people. Even Caesarius had mocked my beliefs. How would I ever fit in? Not knowing what the night might bring, I was comforted in the knowledge that I still had the choice not to join the cohort. As the group murmured amongst themselves, Decimus and Aulus spoke in muted voices, as Vesto listened in. Apollo and Ajax sat in stony silence. No one had seemed in a hurry to turn in, and yet finally, there was the faint rumble of snoring around the campfire. The voices of men in the other camp had also died down, until, at one point, the only sound I heard except the bark of jackals and hoot of a distant owl, was the voice of the Romans discussing the journey ahead. Finally, as I sat on the log, impatient to climb into my pallet and sleep off this trying day, the optio stood up, clapped his hands and called out in sharp voice: “All right men, let’s get some sleep. We’ll rise at dawn. We have a long day tomorrow, so let’s get some rest!”
This time Caesarius and Geta, and, when he returned from watch, Abzug shared a tent with me, instead of that smelly Fronto, who had seemed to take up half of the tent. The entire tent, in fact, was crammed with the veterans and Syrian courier, who would arrive later when we were asleep. The only one I felt uncomfortable with this time was Langullus, who was in a surly mood again.
Almost immediately, as the tent flap shut, he turned on us, gnashing his teeth, “What happened today? You ran like frightened sheep!”
“Calm down, Langullus,” spat Geta, “we’re not diehards like you. Have you forgotten that we’re been cashiered and are leaving the legions in disgrace?”
“We’re still soldiers,” he shot back, “and still men. A Roman soldier doesn’t run from a fight. Those filthy auxilia were ready to carve us up.”
“No,” I took issue, “that’s an exaggeration. Rufus and Enrod are all right. Ajax was the only threat, and I think Apollo’s far more dangerous than he.”
“You shut up, Jew!” Langullus growled.
“You embittered man,” Caesarius snarled, “you’re a fool for standing up for the eagles. After being crippled in battle then given the boot, why should you give a fig about the legions?”
In the dim light of our lamp, Langullus looked bereft of his senses as he lunged at Caesarius. Perhaps it was the wine too. As I cowered at one end of the tent, Geta restrained him by encircling him with his arms. Caesarius had re-sheathed his dagger and was looking squarely into to Langullus’ scarlet face, as I crawled back into the light.
“You try that again, Langullus, and I’ll slit your throat,” he vowed, slipping out of the tent.
“Where are you going?” called Geta. “We must settle this issue. There’s bad blood in this tent. Langullus isn’t right in the head.”
“Relax,” the old veteran called back in a hushed voice, “I’m going to make water. The only bad blood in there is in Langullus’ veins.”
“I’ll be glad when Abzug returns from his watch,” I whispered in a trembling voice. “I don’t trust him. I don’t trust Apollo either. I’ll be glad when I learn how to use a sword.”
“Langullus,” Geta said pushing me back into the darkness, “leave the lad alone. You’ve had too much wine. Your mind’s not working right.”
Suddenly, as it might be expected, the optio charged over, with Aulus on his heels, sword drawn and swearing under his breath.
“Is Thaddeus all right?” he asked, poking his head between the flaps. “So help me, Langullus, if you so much as breathe on that lad, I’ll run you through.”
“Humph, I thought his name was Judah,” Langullus replied quirkily. “Why do you call him Thaddeus? Have you adopted this lad?”
“No, but he’s one of us.” He glared at Langullus. “Get a hold of yourself man. Cornelius made note of your exemplary service. If you behave, you might be given light duty at the fort. You keep this up, and—phffft!—you’re out, begging on the street!” “Come with me,” he motioned impatiently at him, “I’m keeping an eye on you until we reach Antioch. Grab your gear and put it in Aulus’ and my tent.” “Thaddeus, you come too,” he ordered, as Langullus hobbled out. “I was going to teach you to use the gladius tomorrow, but it can’t wait. You gotta learn to use this now! There’s only a few basic thrusts and slicing motions.” “Here,” he said, handing me the weapon, “I have another one. Hold it like this.”
As I followed him into the firelight, he positioned the sword in my hand.
“Please,” I implored, “I’ll sleep in your tent. Let Langullus stay here. I’d be more clear-headed in the morning.”
“Don’t argue, Thaddeus.” He wrung his finger. “You’ll feel much worse in the morning after drinking wine. You stand there by the fire, like I said. I’ll be right there.”
I could scarcely believe what the optio had in mind.
“Decimus,” Aulus came to my defense, “the lad’s tipsy. This can wait till the next stop.”
Not wanting me to overhear, he stomped over to Aulus, and whispered heatedly to him, too loudly for me not to hear, “I don’t trust these men around that Jew, especially Apollo and Langullus. I don’t trust Ibrim either. His countrymen might still be on our trail.” “And them,” he said, pointing in the direction of the next camp, “let’s not forget that bunch. I don’t like the attitude of those men, Aulus. Everyone’s afraid to go to sleep tonight. No one wants to turn in. There’s a chance that lad might have to stand and fight!”
Decimus must have been tipsy, himself, to be that indiscreet. Aulus cast a sympathetic look my way but raised his palms in resignation. Standing by the bonfire, ineptly clutching his sword, I felt lost and alone—bereft of all that I held dear. I had few allies in this group and not many trustworthy friends. I couldn’t count on Caesarius, for he had lost his nerve as a soldier, nor could I be sure yet of the Gauls. Since Vesto rarely talked to me, all I could really count on were Decimus and Aulus. Without them, I was on my own. Nazareth and Sepphoris might as well been on the other side of the world. A twinge of excitement and the realization that I had the optio, himself, as one of my protectors, counterbalanced my fear. I had been loaned his sword. I was going to learn how to use it this very night. If we were attacked, I could defend myself. It didn’t matter that I ran like a jackal in Cana; thanks to Decimus I had a Roman name and a gladius to stab my foes. A hysterical giggle escaped my thought. The thought of a reprisal was also offset by strong drink. I was, despite my purge, still drunk, it was dark, and I had trouble just standing on my feet. How did the optio expect me to learn swordplay under these conditions? Was this, after all his fine words, merely a cruel joke to demonstrate the foolishness of my quest to be a Jewish soldier/scribe? Why couldn’t Decimus do, as Aulus suggested, and wait until our next stop?
That moment Decimus’ face loomed suddenly in front of my eyes. I gasped, jumped back startled out of my wits, dropping my gladius. Through clinched teeth, the optio told me to pick it up, crouch down in a fighting stance, and hold firmly on the handle of the sword.
“Listen, Thaddeus,” he instructed sternly, “we’ll cover the method of Roman sword play in detail during our journey. I’m going to teach you the basics of defense and attack. Concentrate on these simple instructions.”
“Yes sir,” I gulped, looking around at the audience gathering to watch.
“Oh how precious,” Ajax guffawed. “Our leader’s teaching the Jew the arts of war.”
“This is I gotta see!” Apollo poked his head out of the tent.
“No, that’s a wrestlers stance,” Fronto called out instructively.
“Get back into you tents,” barked Aulus, “all of you!”
I remembered how my father had once wielded his large curved sword, a family heirloom, dating back to his ancestor King David. He had been tipsy too, and looked foolish like me. I dug back into my memory and recalled a scene where Roman guards, with drawn swords, had dispersed a crowd of hecklers in Nazareth, but I had never seen soldiers actually fight with swords. So I tried to do exactly what Decimus asked. I bent forward, my arms hanging loosely as I gripped the gladius, legs stationed wide apart in what I recalled as a warlike stance.
“That’s a start,” Decimus murmured, “but look at my hand, not my face. While you’re looking at my face, I can run you through.”
I marveled as the sword was tossed from hand to hand and his legs moved apart, right one forward, then left one forward, continually adjusting his stance.
“Is that what all attackers do?” I asked fearfully.
“No, but you must learn to shift your position,” he explained, parrying forward, over my head and slicing the air on each side of me to demonstrate his attack. “I heard you have a remarkable memory. Did you store away all those moves?”
I nodded numbly, not knowing what next to expect.
“The slight of hand I did—hand to hand—is only done when you don’t have a shield. I just wanted to show how effective this would be.” “Aulus,” he interrupted himself, “hand me that extra shield. Bring me mine too.”
After showing me how to grip the handle inside the shield and position my shield arm, Decimus showed me how to hold it in front of me when the enemy approached.
“In battle your shield is almost as important as your sword,” he explained, raising my sword arm, with the blade pointed straight up. “This is the correct advance of the soldier until reaching the enemies line. When an enemy or attacker approaches, you fall into the crouch.”
“Thank you,” I muttered, “now where’s my helmet?”
Aulus handed me his helmet, but it was too large. Caesarius, who was emerging from the trees that moment, quickly ran into the tent. Before he could loan me his, however, Ibrim, of all people, walked over and set his strange-looking peaked helmet on my head. Though I felt ritually defiled by this, I thanked him too, feeling quite beside myself at this point.
“Now you’re properly attired.” Decimus stood back and studied me. “But you might not have either your helmet or shield when you’re attacked. It’s your sword that matters most in combat. Remember that. The most important movements of your feet and stations of the sword are what I want you to memorize this evening. I know you can do it. You’re not that drunk. First there’s a forward movement of the leg, while holding the sword and shield. We’ll practice with the shield and helmet, but concentrate mostly on the gladius.”
“All right,” I said light-headedly. “What next?”
“This!” he cried. In one, subtle movement, he knocked the sword out of my hand.
“Uh oh,” Fronto said with a snicker.
“Hold the sword more tightly,” Caesarius counseled, “Never loosen your grip.”
“He’s right.” Decimus sighed, as I picked up my sword and resumed my crouch.
“Now thrust forward,” he commanded, “and bring your elbow back in one smooth motion. Aim at the enemy’s belly. You’re hitting my shield now, but if you’re lucky in a fight, you’ll find a break between his body and shield. That’s it: forward and backward. Now raise your arm at an angle and make a slicing motion to come down on you enemies neck. That’s it—you don’t really want to cut off my head.” “Now put the shield and helmet aside,” he ordered crisply. “I must give you the basics of sword-fighting.”
“Wasn’t that what we were doing?” I asked in tremulous voice. “That sounds dangerous sir. What if I stab you?”
“Stand back and defend yourself!” he growled dramatically. “Follow my movements: thrust, slice, and clank my sword to get the feel of metal against metal.”
For several moments, as he described each motion, we clanked swords, which reminded me of the childhood games my brothers and I played in the hills of Nazareth, but with wooden swords. After gently demonstrating how to knock a weapon out of someone’s hand again by hitting the hilt sharply and jarring my knuckles, I tried it myself, Decimus exaggerating the response and letting his weapon fall to the ground. Then, after practicing this maneuver a few times, I was shown how to fend off a downward slicing motion or forward thrust by the exact opposite movement for the slice (slicing up) and a sideward movement to fend off a thrust. Back and forth, up and down, and to the side our swords clanked and swished in the air. Throughout my training, my excellent memory, which Jesus saw as one of my great gifts, stored away the movements of the sword, feet, and shield, until at one point when I was so exhausted I thought I would drop, Decimus barked “Enough!”
Our audience had stood around the fire pit or peeked through the tent flaps watching this event. With the fire as a backdrop, our shadows were thrown against the surrounding green and camp. The golden light on the optio’s chiseled features made him look like a fearsome foe. The same effect, I’m sure, had made me look like a buffoon. The three sentries had moved in close enough to witness our mock duel, Aulus smiled with approval, and Decimus looked upon me for the first time since this odyssey began with a look of respect, rather than pity or concern.
Backing up suddenly and giving me a curt bow, Decimus signaled the end of our session. I knew that there would be more in the future, and I dreaded the experience. Though the optio and his friend appreciated my efforts, the other men broke into giggles afterwards. I could hear them inside their tents. Even Caesarius, who offered advice during my training, cracked a smile, as I stood there delirious with fatigue. Decimus eyed him threateningly.
“Now, with the exception of the second watch, we shall all get some sleep,” he called out sternly. “Thaddeus, return Ibrim’s helmet but take the sword and shield into your tent. The barbarians we fight don’t need helmets. For now, until we get protection for your head, your sword and shield will have to do. Sleep with your sword next to your pallet. Never sleep with your back to the tent. Face the goatskin with your hand on the hilt.” “This is true for all of you.” He looked around the camp. “The second watch will relieve Rufus, Enrod, and Abzug within the hour. “Get as much rest as possible when you can—if you can—until we arrive in Tyre. I want no more infighting and arguing. We may not all be friends but we’re colleagues under the eagles. A greater enemy lies out there. The most important thing for us is to put this province behind us and be ready to fight as a unit if we’re attacked. We break camp at dawn. Get some sleep!”